19 to 23 March 2012 Tech Universe Digest

Tech Universe: Monday 19 March 2012

  • HOT SPOTS: The US Military’s Active Denial System isn’t like a microwave oven because the radio wave frequency it uses is too slow and doesn’t penetrate deeply enough. But the weapon does create an unbearable sensation of heat that causes a person to move away. The 95 gigahertz heat ray is effective from even 1,000 metres, and could be used for crowd control, mob dispersal, checkpoint security and similar purposes. The weapon’s stealthy: there’s no warning that the heat is on its way, but it’s very effective. If you can’t stand the heat head for the kitchen. Sydney Morning Herald.
  • PINK SPOTS: It seems the Cardiff Council in Wales want to use some special technology to deter antisocial behaviour in certain areas of town. They’re thinking of installing pink lighting because it highlights pimples on teenage skin, and they think boys will avoid areas where the lights are coloured pink. And troublesome teenagers would never think of destroying the lights, I’m sure. BBC.
  • 560 MILLION SPOTS: NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer mapped the entire sky in 2010. It collected more than 2.7 million images taken at 4 infrared wavelengths of light — that’s more than 15 trillion bytes of returned data. Now the individual WISE exposures have been combined into an atlas of more than 18,000 images covering the sky and listing the infrared properties of more than 560 million individual objects. The WISE mission was responsible for many discoveries, including a new type of asteroid and a new class of star. That’s a lot of imagery to process. Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
  • CELL PEEL: Twin Creeks Technologies in the USA has found a way to make thin wafers of crystalline silicon that halves the cost of making silicon solar cells. Their Proton Induced Exfoliation uses less silicon and reduces manufacturing costs. While silicon blocks are traditionally cut up by saw, creating a kind of sawdust waste, the new process fires hydrogen ions to a precise depth in a block. Hydrogen bubbles form that lift a thin layer of silicon away from the rest, leaving no waste. It’s good to know exfoliation can be so useful. Twin Creeks Technologies. Video:
  • PRESS PLAY: Use conductive ink to print circuits on paper and all kinds of things become possible. For example, the prototype Listening Post poster shows a map and thumbnail images of bands performing nearby. Press the thumbnail image on the poster so a short music clip plays, and you can book tickets to listen to them live. The poster and similar products have been developed by a British research partnership. And when the paper with printed circuits reaches the end of its useful life — can it be recycled, or must it go to landfill? BBC.

Tech Universe: Tuesday 20 March 2012

  • LIGHTS ONLINE: Disappointed that you’re too far from the South Pole to see an aurora. Would seeing one on a live cam be any consolation? The Canadian Space Agency have a live aurora cam where you can watch auroras as they happen. The camera’s in the city of Yellowknife, near the Arctic Circle and operates until late May. Don’t worry if you miss out though, as the site has a replay page and feature videos of the best auroras. All the light show, not too much of the cold. Wired Science. Auroracam
  • SHORT-TERM VIEW: DARPA has a new programme called Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements, or SeeMe. It aims to give US warfighters access to on-demand, space-based tactical information by using a constellation of small satellites. The programme could launch a couple of dozen satellites from an aircraft into a very low-earth orbit. Each satellite, costing around $500,000, would last 2 to 3 months before burning up in the atmosphere. Warfighters could call up imagery from a satellite as and when they needed it. Burning money. Again. DARPA.
  • CLENCHED HANDS: Astronauts have many problems. One is that the air inside their pressurised suits makes the fingers of their gloves stiff and hard to close. The Robo-Glove General Motors are developing will help by reducing the amount of force required to grip an object. Actuators and pressure sensors in the gloves determine when the wearer is grasping an object. Then synthetic tendons automatically retract, pulling the fingers into a gripping position and holding them there until the sensor is released. No more dropped screwdrivers then. General Motors.
  • FLAT EYES: Tests on 27 astronauts who flew long-duration space missions with NASA showed that micro-gravity deforms their eyeballs. The results suggest that longer missions have more severe effects. Astronauts already suffer bone loss and muscle wastage, so now there’s one more thing to worry about. It seems like mimicking gravity on spacecraft is something that really needs thinking about. Sydney Morning Herald.
  • MOON PEOPLE: Russia’s Federal Space Agency aims to land cosmonauts on the Moon by 2030. The Russians are already building a new spaceport in eastern Russia called Vostochny, which will be the launch site for rockets from 2018. The agency has many other ambitious plans too, especially for Mars, Venus and Jupiter, but first they need to sort out the problems that have plagued their recent launches. SPACE.com.

Tech Universe: Wednesday 21 March 2012

  • NEXT TOP MOLECULE: Imagine moving individual molecules around to create a new substance. That’s what scientists at Stanford University have done. They used a scanning tunneling microscope to move and place individual carbon monoxide molecules on a clean sheet of copper to create an entirely new substance called molecular graphene. What they were doing was tuning the fundamental properties of electrons to behave in ways rarely seen in ordinary materials. The researchers hope this marks the beginning of new designer nanoscale materials with useful electronic properties. I sure hope we’ll have whole TV programmes dedicated to the next top molecule. Stanford University.
  • NEXT TOP RESOLUTION: Virtual Reality goggles and the like display images only a few millimetres from your eyes, unlike computer screens that are usually centimetres away. So screen resolution really is all-important. Replicating Reality microdisplays cram in the pixels for Near-To-Eye applications that will really immerse the viewer. They’re soon to launch microdisplays that use 2048*1536 pixels. Each pixel renders red, green and blue information, helping to create a smooth image, and fooling the brain into believing the image is reality. But what we see on screen is reality, isn’t it? Replicating Reality.
  • ROUND AND ROUND: Cardiac pacemakers send electrical signals to the heart to keep it beating in a healthy rhythm. To do that the pacemakers need batteries, or some other source of power. But batteries need replacing from time to time. Researchers at the University of Michigan have a novel idea for powering the devices: harvest energy from the reverberation of heartbeats through the chest and use it to power the pacemaker. The researchers don’t yet have a prototype, but they do have a concept. The believe they can use a piezoelectric ceramic material to briefly expand in response to the vibrations. Those expansions can create an electric voltage. Magnets boost the electric signal and help generate 10 microwatts of power — more than enough to power the pacemaker. It sounds too circular to be true. EurekAlert!
  • HANDS DOWN: When your passenger plane arrives at the terminal the pilot is guided in by hand signals. But how could hand signals be used to guide a robot plane, for example when landing on the moving deck of an aircraft carrier? The plane has to recognise different body postures such as arms up or arms down even as the person moves with the motion of the ship, and then correctly match the gesture to an instruction. Researchers at MIT have been developing algorithms to do this. One technique uses short bursts of overlapping video that allow the algorithm to calculate the probability of a particular gesture. So far they can manage 76% accuracy. It all turns out to be surprisingly complex really. MIT News.
  • SCAN SCAN: CT scans are something of a necessary evil. They’re an extremely useful tool for doctors, but the radiation dose for a standard chest CT scan is equal to about 70 chest X-rays. That high dose is OK in an emergency, but a real consideration if routine scans are needed. Doctors could use low-dose scans instead but then it takes days of processing to derive useful information from the image. GE’s Veo system processes low-dose scans in as little as one hour. First, carefully tuned algorithms reduce the X-ray power by up to 90 percent. Then new computer processors quickly derive meaningful data from the images. That means the people who need regular scans don’t need to worry so much about the radiation. Good job, GE! Intel Corporation.

Tech Universe: Thursday 22 March 2012

  • SILK SHIRT DEFENCE: In adverse conditions anthrax spores enclose themselves in a tough coating and become dormant. The spores can survive heat, radiation, antibiotics and harsh environmental conditions, but not silk. Or at least, not when the silk is treated with chlorine compounds. Researchers immersed silk for an hour in a chlorinated solution then let the silk dry. When they tested E. coli bacteria and spores of a close anthrax relative almost all the bacteria and spores were killed within 10 minutes. This coating could be useful for protecting homes and offices against an anthrax attack, or for purifying water in emergencies. It sounds too simple to be true. American Chemical Society.
  • SOUND THEORY: Extremely fast planes like the Concorde cause problematic sonic booms when they break the sound barrier. An MIT researcher thinks he may be able to solve the sonic boom problem by using one pair of wings on each side of the plane. A computer model suggested that the design could produce significantly less drag than a conventional single-wing aircraft at supersonic cruise speeds. Less drag means less fuel and less of a sonic boom. The specially shaped wings would be placed one above the other but curved to create a kind of flattened triangle as seen from the side. So far, though, it’s all theory. The design may not fly after all. MIT.
  • HIGH LEVEL TESTING: NASA’s Starshade is a disc-shaped screen that blocks light from the atmosphere to give astronomers a better view of distant planets. The problem is it needs to be lifted high into the air and hover for hours. That’s why they’re using a 75 metre long blimp called Eureka that can stay in place for up to 2 days. For steering it uses a 4 propeller vectoring system controlled by a joystick. The blimp will also be fitted with various sensors so that while it’s hovering up in the air it can do research on things like air quality, earthquake fault lines and methane emissions. Testing the blimp starts soon. Nice multitasking, NASA. Wired.
  • FLYING LOW: If you just love being in the water then perhaps a Subwing would interest you. The Subwing is an articulated board with one wing for each hand. It’s towed behind a boat travelling at about 2 knots, but takes you underwater. Twist the wings in different directions for dives, sideways movements or spins. The board’s designed to be used with only a diving mask, or perhaps a snorkel. The penguins have underwater flying down — without a board. Subwing.
  • SMART SURVEYS: If you’re surveying people about their health to gather disease data then the good old-fashioned way is to use pen and paper. Researchers in Kenya though found that using smartphones was cheaper than traditional paper survey methods, once you got past the initial cost. But then, in some places paper is a very limited resource anyway. The study took both paper-based surveys and smartphone-based surveys at 4 influenza surveillance sites in Kenya. The smartphone surveys were more accurate, had more complete responses and had results available in 24 hours. The paper surveys took several weeks before their data was even uploaded. Perhaps census takers should consider this too. EurekAlert!

Tech Universe: Friday 23 March 2012

  • STAND ALONE: An alternative to a wheelchair for a paraplegic is the TEK Robotic Mobilization Device from Turkey. The wheeled device allows the user to stand, sit and bend over while holding them securely with supporting belts. The electric device means the user is mobile, and in fact it fits in smaller spaces than a wheelchair. The user easily enters the device while it’s in front of them, and they can move it from a parking place to where they need it with a remote. All it needs now is a better name. TEK Robotic Mobilization Device.
  • MAPPING BODIES: The Bodymetrics Pod is designed for clothing shoppers. A shopper steps into a cubicle where 8 Kinect for Windows sensors arranged in a circle scan their body. 5 seconds later, proprietary software produces a 3D map of the customer’s body. The customer can then use that 3D map to shop for jeans and find the pair that fits best. Bodymetrics has plans to help people use the system at home to map their bodies then shop online for clothing, trying on garments virtually. And with any luck aggregated data could lead manufacturers to improve the fit of their designs. Microsoft.
  • PHOTO DIFFS: How can you determine that 2 photos are the same, when one has been resized or otherwise altered? This is a huge problem for law enforcement and other agencies trying to eliminate images of child sexual exploitation from the Internet. Microsoft’s PhotoDNA technology has at least part of the answer. The technology calculates the particular characteristics of a given digital image, creating a hash value which is like a digital fingerprint. Where this system differs from others is that it can still match images, even after they’ve been altered. The system can also quickly and reliably find similar images from amongst billions of images. This goal’s good but the technology has some scary implications. Microsoft.
  • MILK MACHINE: There are some cities in the UK, France and northern Spain where you’ll find an unusual vending machine that moos at you. The vending machines accept your Euro coin and dispense farm fresh milk into a container you supply. Sounds healthier than a fizzy drink dispenser. CubeMe.
  • TALKING THROUGH STONE: Researchers from the University of Rochester and North Carolina State University used nearly massless neutrino particles recently to send a message, literally. The neutrinos passed at almost the speed of light through 240 metres of stone to spell out a word at the other end. Neutrinos can penetrate almost anything they encounter, so this could open up communications channels in places where it’s nearly impossible now. One example is for submarines trying to communicate over long distances through water. Another may be for communicating with astronauts on the far side of the moon. Don’t get your hopes up for a neutrino based smartphone though. This test was carried out at Fermilab because it takes massive amounts of high-tech equipment to communicate a message using neutrinos. The stumbling block is always the infrastructure. Rochester University.

Notes: I write a Tech Universe column for the NZ Herald. This is a fun assignment: Tech Universe brings 5 headlines each day about what’s up in the world of technology. Above are the links from last week as supplied. The items that were published in The Herald may differ slightly.

While I find all the items interesting, some are just cooler than others. I’ve marked out those items.